By Lily Miller
Today, the focus of our studies was the water systems of Venice, Italy. We started the day at Venice International University where Francesca Zennaro talked to us about both the natural and human history of the Venice lagoon. She discussed the ecological diversity of the lagoon. It is a relatively new geological feature, formed by an ice age about 6,000 years ago. The lagoon features freshwater marshes inland, salt marshes in the north, and a full ecological spectrum on the barrier islands. She explained that Venice itself began as an archipelago of islands that was gradually filled in to the point where only canals remained separating land masses. In order to build upon the muddy ground, Venetians developed an ingenious engineering system of using long wooden beams as foundations. These beams reach seven meters down to the hard ‘caranto’ layer.
Francesca told us that over time, as engineering systems advanced, it was possible for the Venetians to change the landscape of the lagoon even further. We learned that the natural ecological progression for a lagoon is for it to fill with sediment. However, because the Venetians wanted a protected port, they redirected rivers to avoid sediment deposits. Unfortunately, over time this led to an overcorrection, and today the Venice Lagoon is moving towards becoming an all-marine ecosystem. This, combined with sea level rise, groundwater removal, and the decomposition of organic material in the mud, is leading to the sinking of Venice. This is considered by many to be the primary issue facing Venice today.
One of the solutions to the sinking of Venice is the MOSE system, which we got to tour in the afternoon in-person. We went on a boat tour to see one of the inlets where the MOSE system is being implemented. Although the majority of the system is underwater, we did get to see some of the infrastructure used for the construction and operation of the structures. Hollow iron boxes form a barrier that can be emptied of water and filled with air to lift off the sea floor and seal the lagoon off from rising waters in the Adriatic during very high tides that threaten Venice.
After the tour of the MOSE system, we explored an island that was once used as a quarantine site. The concept and word quarantine come from the Venetian dialect, as they were pioneers in using this practice during the black plague. We also used this stop to get a closer look at the ecological systems of the salt marsh.
We also made a brief stop at Burano, a colorful fishermen’s village on another lagoon island famous for lace making and its bakeries. On our ride home, we passed Murano, an island known worldwide for its glassmaking. We also passed the arsenal, which was the heart of Shipbuilding in Venice, and is still operational today.
In the evening for our final night in Venice, we had a group dinner of Italian tapas called “cicchetti”. The meal included a lot of the foods Venice is famous for, including seafood lasagna, shrimp spaghetti, and calamari. After dinner, Todd showed us some of his favorite “hidden gems” of Venice, including Marco Polo’s house. We talked about the urban fabric of the city, and how quickly with just a few turns one can move from very public to very private spaces. We finished the evening with gelato and a visit to St. Mark’s Square, which was beautiful when lit up at night. The day was altogether adventurous, educational, and a great introduction to our upcoming water module.